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The Future of Public Markets and the Amazing Value of One in Baltimore


"If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food."  - William H. Whyte (from PPS website)
The glow of companionship: Faidley's at Lexington Market in Baltimore  (photo: ArchPlan)

A single food truck can add community (photo: ArchPlan)
The world over there is little in cities that can stir public sentiment as much as messing with the public markets. No wonder, since markets are as old as cities. Markets do not only reflect history and the various methods of production and distribution, but also a succession of trends in urban
The historic Paris Market Les Halles
development and planning.  In the middle ages bestowing market right to a town made a place a real town. In European history books the recognition of the public market counts as the date for the birth of a town. Later, in the industrial age, markets were frowned upon as unsanitary, and with transportation and distribution blooming they were finally seen as inefficient.

This eventually brought the demise of the famous Covent Garden Market in London and the 1969 demolition of Les Halles in Paris, an institution dating back to 1137, and the advent of non-descript wholesale "terminal" markets at the periphery close to rail and truck access. These were closed to the public, simply an affair of efficient distribution, devoid of any social function. Parisiens to this day haven't stopped mourning the loss of Les Halles nor Londoners of Covent Garden, which, while lovingly restored, is nothing but an assortment of brand name stores with gawking tourists trying to trace a more colorful past. Other 
Historic Covent Garden Market in London
grand cities were luckier, for example Santiago de Chile with its fantastic cast iron hall for the Mercado Central, maintained and active to this day, or Barcelona, Spain, with over 40 public markets and the place for an international public markets conference in 2015.
Baltimore Lexington Market (Historical Society)
The US has seen its share of destroyed markets, some met the wrecking ball, some survived as buildings with new uses. Even the people of Baltimore, a city still with a strong presence of public markets, don't have to go far to find lost public markets. They need to only check out the buildings on Market Place where, instead of a Fish Market, a Children's Museum next to an active drinking scene called Power Plant Live make a mockery of the street name.  They can look at North Avenue and see the sprawling North Avenue Market building which is slowly recovering from decades of having been shuttered. Now small enterprises such as the Red Emma's coffee shop, a printer, Liam
Restored Covent Garden today
Flinn's Irish Pub, the Windup Space gallery/bar and a gallery run by MICA and the Baltimore D center all part of a fledgling new community of "creatives" in the Station North arts and entertainment district. Baltimore still has a good number of public neighborhood markets: Hollins Market,

The Avenue Market, Cross Street Market, Broadway Market and Northeast Market, each one an important anchor in their community. Northeast Market is just recently revamped, Broadway Market is in the middle of a rejuvenation, Cross Street is soon to be offered up for private management. The flagship of Baltimore's markets, known as the oldest continuously operating market in the country, is Lexington Market, which at a 2005 Project for Public Spaces event was described with these words:
Historic Baltimore Fish Market

…the story of Baltimore's markets would not be complete without mention of its most famous one–Lexington Market. Nineteenth century accounts describe it as the hub of the city, where as many as 600 wagons would jam the area on Saturdays, when payday crowds of 50,000 men, women and children went to the market. It was Lexington Market that gave Baltimore, at one time, the reputation for being the gastronomical capital of the universe. By 1925 over 1000 stalls under 3 block long sheds comprised the area. In an effort to curtail traffic congestion, as well as to attract a suburban clientele, streetcar service brought shoppers right to the door of the market.Today, Lexington Market covers more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, occupied by about 130 merchants. In keeping with tradition, many of its stalls offer a variety of delicatessen and prepared foods to local business people, homemakers, and tourists who visit the market for a quick sample of its offerings. Located within walking distance of the Convention Center, at Lexington and Howard Streets, it also makes a handy stop for conventioneers looking for a taste of Baltimore. (Helen Tangires, 2005, Project for Public Spaces).


In this article Lexington Market in Baltimore shall serve as an example of how even great historic markets face life threatening challenges and require bold action to survive as markets.
Baltimore's Lexington Market: Not all the lights are on. (photo ArchPlan)
Today the Convention Center isn't any further away and the downtown area has been catapulted to be #1 in residential growth in the city and #8 among the nation's downtowns in attracting the young generation now dubbed "millennials". Yet Lexington Market has seen drops in customers year after year and with associated hand wringing in newspaper articles and radio shows. Baltimoreans ask themselves, why can't our market be like Seattle's Pike's Market, or like the Reading Market in Philadelphia, or Toronto's Lawrence Market? A 2010 national Advisory Panel of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) had identified the Market as a key component for success in revitalizing the Westside, which was Baltimore's former retail hub. In 2014, in a nod to all this attention, the city took the bold step of paying a market consultant nearly half a million dollars to study what needs to be done. The report is expected to be published early 2015. 
The desire to have a well functioning urban public market runs parallel to a number of relevant trends: 
  • Changes in retail make suburban supermarkets not only ever larger, but more and more like public markets with "streets" and "stores", here the baker, there the flower shop, the fish monger and, right when you come in, a sea of fresh produce. 
    Produce at suburban Wegmans supermarket, Columbia
    (photo: ArchPlan)
  • Even in the recession "food" has proven to be a boom market with more money than ever spent on prepared foods
  • Interest in local, fresh and healthy food choices is increasing and farmers markets are springing up across the nation
  • While suburban supermarkets break ever new records in size and attractiveness, many US cities  combat extensive "food deserts" caused by a dearth of urban supermarkets. 
  • Developers, seeing the needs, respond with smaller private markets,, such as Belvedere Market in Baltimore's northeast side near the county line, a fairly gentrified affair near affluent neighborhoods that needed to be rescued already once when it was in a precipitous decline, but is once again cherished by communities all around.
  • Urban supermarkets, like the wildly successful Whole Foods in Baltimore's glitzy downtown offshoot Harbor east or Harris Teeter at the new developments of McHenry Row and Canton Crossing, are testimony that modern grocers know how to thrive in cities but do little to overcome persisting food deserts in the poorer communities
Planners no longer consider markets as unsavory, dirty quarters, fraught with prostitution and other dealings not quite above the table, that need to be removed from the core of cities as in the case of London or Paris. Today urban designers and "place makers" are waxing poetic about the urbanity, the social capital and the cohesion that comes from public markets. Just like at the beginning of cities, public markets are seen again as a vital element of what it means to be a city. Maybe also a place where to reconnect with food that has become so 
Heavy handed police controls around Lexington Market
making drug dealers and customers equally uncomfortable
(photo: ArchPlan)
estranged, its production so far removed from our experience and its distribution so anonymous, just a packaged and weighed item to be picked up from a shelf to be scanned at the check out. How different potentially the market experience where food can be touched, custom cut, sold with the flourish of a vendor who is proud of his or her products.

But there is a fine line between the now cherished liveliness, diversity and urbanity, and seeing markets as somewhat raw and vulgar. In Baltimore the old suspicions are not quite gone. Lack of cleanliness, fears of drug dealing inside and out, and shabby surroundings without much appeal  are still the main arguments of people who don't go to Baltimore's Lexington Market. 
As a neighbor, with my office just two blocks up from the Lexington Market, I believe there are more sinister reasons why this particular market doesn't thrive. 
On a warm and sunny day a while back I walked down the street with a visitor who had grown up in South Africa and had worked in health care in other African Countries. Upon eyeing the sidewalk vendors peddling umbrellas and cheap wares, the preacher shouting a sermon from the edge of the curb, the throngs of people gathering at the bus stops, the clumps of folks blocking sidewalks for chats and possibly illicit exchange of "red-tops" or the like, my visitor took it all in and observed, "this is the most like Africa I have ever seen it outside of Africa". She liked it and felt quite at home. The new downtown residents, the suburban middle class, the students and employees of the nearby University of Maryland and evidently visitors as well don't quite see it that way. They feel threatened. Pike's Market and Reading Market aren't like that, certainly not Lawrence Market. For this article I visited the Lexington Market on a grey and drizzly recent evening with early darkness that left much of the city like a ghost-town, and even the touristy Harborplace Christmas Market a deserted area.
Lexington Market on a dreary late December afternoon, a
place to meet people (photo: ArchPlan)
The one area that was bustling with people and was full of the warm glow of human companionship was the public Lexington Market.
What can be done? The revival of faltering public markets is not new. The already noted Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia is a great example of such a revival.
The consultants working on the big set of solutions for Lexington Market have leakeda few details. Their suggestions seem to aim at many of the physical features of this market, namely that it's floor slopes from Paca to Eutaw Street to meet each street at grade, a feature that makes the interior a bit unusual but is certainly appreciated by the many wheelchair users that can be seen in the market area. Leveling the floor would be probably the most drastic physical intervention short of leveling the whole building, and would remove some of the quirkiness that makes this market special. It may also be better to spend more money on merchandising and management than on big building fixes. As an architect, I can see how level floors could allow a signature two story atrium on the (lower) east side, which could be a dramatic connection to the entire Westside area of downtown and to the subway stop across the street. A far more cost effective thing, though, would be to give the market building a clear visual center allowing better spatial orientation than the maze of stall today that allow no sense of place at all.
Consultants, of course, also aim at the currently totally un-yuppified food selections, in which each baker (there are seven) has the same yellow cakes smothered in colorful oily frostings, and where there is more fried food than exotic fruit. But here, too, lingers the danger of eliminating the authentic Baltimore grit, with specialties like pigs' feet, freshly cut veal liver ("baby beef") that can only be had here or in some of the Asian supermarkets out in the County. Most famously and maybe most Baltimore, of course, is Faidley's, with its seafood, oysters and crabs and, most importantly, the Baltimore crab-cakes, which are shipped on demand nationwide.
specialty bakery items one cannot find in Baltimore's
public markets (photo ArchPlan)
Discussions about the Lexington Market quickly touch nerves, depending on with whom one speaks, because the market serves various needs and maybe evokes even more aspirations. There are those who love its gruff authenticity and old fashioned food choices, there are those who use the market for their daily shopping because adjacent neighborhoods to the west have scarcely any stores, and then there is a growing number of people who think that the market surely doesn't live up to its potential and needs a major re-set. 
There seems to be little in terms of guiding principles that could create a base for consensus and evaluation or assessment of proposed measures to determine which are effective and which disastrous. Also missing and not part of the study is a comprehensive strategy for all of the other public markets that the city still controls.
 From my perspective as neighbor, user and urban designer, here are a few unsolicited thoughts as to what a great Lexington Market needs to do, based on some basic outcome oriented principles and goals. The experts would have to see how these outcomes could best be achieved.
  1. The market needs to continue its important role of being a source for groceries and food for the low income residents of the westside neighborhoods, while also serving the new and growing mixed use neighborhood now dubbed Westside.
  2. Add diversity instead of taking anything away. This should apply to the vendors, the goods they offer and the customers to be attracted. Diversity would also mean adding some more upscale food choices 
    The art of food display in bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey
    (photo: ArchPlan) 
  3. Aim for ways that allow some control over the surroundings so that shops, restaurants, bars in the historic buildings facing the market work synergistically with the market instead of at cross purposes. 
  4. Good markets reach out with "permeable walls" so that the market can grow and shrink with seasonal functions beyond the walls on the adjacent streets, and especially the neighboring lot, now used for surface parking. It should have open sheds that could accommodate farmers on certain days, seasonal market offerings and events as well as outdoor seating for food customers.
  5. Shrink and concentrate the overall market footprint by eliminating the currently underperforming "west market" across from Paca Street
    Pikes Market in Seattle has vibrant market centered
    surroundings that add to the market's offerings
    (Photo: ArchPlan)
  6. The interior must be more attractive. Lighting, display of goods and presentation need to be on par with supermarket operations like Wegmans, without losing the old fashioned market touch that comes  from selling certain products across counters. There should be much more daylight, ideally through an attractive skylight. Generally, though, resources should be focussed on fostering a better product range instead of spending all the money on gussying up the building 
The market area should be active from early in the morning to late in the evening. Few residents would be disturbed, so it would be a perfect area for entertainment and bars similar to the area around the Cross Street Market in in Baltimore's Federal Hill, but with the big difference that the many bars there are a big burden on the community. A revamped market would offer trendy foods such as crusty breads baked on the premises, or more exotic fruit choices than those available at produce stands, but keep comfort foods, prepared foods and Baltimore specialties. That modern facilities or gentrification are not the key ingredients to success becomes obvious at Philadelphia's Italian Market, a very successful bland between a "complete street" (replete even with limited car traffic), open air market stands and ethnic retail lining the old fashioned street. In fact, nothing in this Philadelphia street seems to have changed in decades and yet the market is wildly successful, in part a reflection of the revitalization in the surrounding communities.
Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market
has a strong relationship to the street
(photo: ArchPlan)
The relation between the success of Baltimore's Westside and the success of Baltimore's largest public market is complicated, but one can probably safely say that the market will never thrive if the surrounding areas continue to ail. While a market can certainly be a magnet and attraction in a city quarter and provide the identity and meeting spot in a community, it cannot turn a floundering area around. Washington's Eastern Market shows that a thriving market and a vital community go hand in hand. Baltimore's Cross Street Market, by contrast, shows that a booming neighborhood like Federal Hill alone does not guarantee a successful market if it is unresponsive to the changing needs of surrounding residents. 


Even though Baltimore's flagship market is far from the Harbor and the tourists that cling to the waterfront, it has the potential of once again become the tourist magnet it once was. For this to happen, though, it must be possible for visitors to walk the distance without feeling they are lost or have veered into dangerous territory.  Being served by the free downtown circulator bus would help as well; currently its routes do not serve the Westside. More importantly, the market could surely serve both as a community food source and as a lunch destination for the students and employees of the vast University of Maryland campus, the University Hospital and the nearby Veterans Hospital. Most
Fish stand at Seattle's Pike's Market indicates
that "tourism matters". It does.
importantly, it could be stabilized as one of those "places and spaces that restore human connection when there are so many factors going against those connections, " as Salin Gevarghese, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Policy Development & Research, U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development described the need for "place making" at this years national Placemaking Leadership Council Conference in Pittsburgh.

The Westside with its historic building stock could be  showcasing local smaller scale specialty retail and become an ideally synergistic background for such a rejuvenated market. In Baltimore, all across North America and across the world, public markets have an important future as place making elements of cities by providing authenticity in the age of sameness. The public is right to care what will happen to them.
Stuttgart, Germany: A refurbished Markthalle and its attractive food
display (photo: ArchPlan)